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Rosa Parks. Halle Berry. Tina Turner. These three Black women and many others share a common holistic approach to finding peace: practicing yoga.
Holistic wellness in the Black community dates back to before Africans were transported to America through the slave trade, and one approach, yoga, has strengthened Black women for centuries.
Yoga is a spiritual discipline with Hindu roots that aims to gain harmony in the body and mind through physical movements and breathing techniques.
Tina Turner turned to the practice and the famous Buddhism chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” to find peace after an abusive relationship with ex-husband, Ike Turner. In 2020, Halle Berry wrote in Women’s Health magazine that she uses yoga to let go of negative energy.
“Though I’ve been working with my energy for years, this work feels especially relevant and important right now. The current state of our country – and the world – makes it very easy to feel afraid, lost and depressed,” she penned.
Rosa Parks in the Bow Pose
Many know the story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger during the beginning of the civil rights movement, but few knew that she practiced yoga in her later years.
A photo of her practicing Dhanurasana, or Bow Pose in March 1973, began to circulate on social media after photos were put on display at the Library of Congress exhibit “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words” in December 2019.
Stephanie Evans, a professor at Georgia State University and author of “Black Women’s Yoga History: Memoirs of Inner Peace,” learned of the previously unpublished photos in the library’s digital archive, according to the Association of Black Women Historians.
She learned from family narratives and papers there that Parks learned yoga in 1965 with her nieces and nephews and practiced for three decades.
“I recognized it is a poignant illustration of how Black women’s healing traditions are historical, spiritual, creative and political,” Evans said according to to the association’s website.
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Evans told USA TODAY via email that although the discovery of Rosa Parks practicing yoga was a turning point in her research journey, understanding the historical movement of the practice across decades was more than about one person.
“I was equally surprised and impressed by the broad number of references I found in Black mainstream culture,” she wrote. “Sources like digital archives of Howard University, Library of Congress, Emory University and Ebony Magazine showed me how common yoga was for Black people in the 1970s, in addition to the broader U.S. culture.”
Practicing yoga in the 1970s
Jana Long, founder of Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, began practicing yoga in 1972.
“Yoga was doing me before I was doing it, meaning I think yoga in the physical approach is such an authentic way of moving,” Long told USA TODAY. “We move in those ways when we are younger, but then life gets in the way.”
When Long was in school, she participated in physical education and learned callisthenic practices like the bicycle position, which is the shoulder stand in yoga.
One day in the early 1970s, she was watching TV and came across a program called “Lilias, Yoga and You” that aired on PBS. Long saw the same pose she did in junior high.
“When I discovered this thing called yoga, I began to seek more information about yoga, and at the time there wasn’t a lot of books like there are now,” she said.
Long said yoga was looked at unfavorably in the ’70s and was considered “too different at the time.”
“You didn’t want to bring it up because people thought you were some kind weirdo, kook or in a cult.”
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It would be 30 years before Long would encounter another Black person who practiced yoga, and she didn’t learn about Parks practicing yoga until Evans wrote her book.
“It would be fitting that we would not know,” Long said. “Rosa Parks’ yoga practice was a very small community. Coming into the ’60s era, we’re coming off of the Red Scare and McCarthy era and all that kind of stuff went underground.”
Long understands why the “mother of the civil rights movement” would have kept yoga private, because in Parks’ early days she would have learned it was a personal practice.
“How we see yoga now, everybody is up in handstands and bikini girls with their legs all up. That is not yoga; that is some form of acrobatics or gymnastics,” she said.
In her own teachings, Long learned yoga was a practice for personal development and something to consider sacred and not the commodity and commercialized version plastered over social media.
“It’s not something for display so to speak, but it is something for community. It’s something for building yourself in connection with others from a place of your heart, your hands and your head.”
Black people coming to yoga for peace
Since the beginning of the 21st century, Black people have been more open to practicing yoga, Long said.
There may still be some resistance in some communities because some may believe it will conflict with their religious beliefs, according to Long.
But with the comorbidities and health disparities in the Black community, Long said the physical practice of yoga can be a tool, not a cure, to help manage fitness and the stress that comes with life.
“In the nature of a Black person, the African descendant, the African diaspora, there is something we know about spirit,” she said. “It plays out in our music, our dance, poetry and through our being. We can tap into that and express that through yoga in community with each other and get that healing and nurturing that we need that fortifies us to face the world.”
With what Black people are facing in today’s world and how it’s impacting mental health, Long said now is the right time to add yoga to the toolbox.
“Yoga teaches how to be still, how to be quiet and release some of your judgment and how to decrease your ego so you can be at peace with yourself first, so when you encounter others you can be with them as they are and still at peace with yourself,” she said.
“Yoga is a peace practice, and that’s why we need it more than ever now because we are so not at peace.”
Follow reporter Asha Gilbert @Coastalasha. Email: [email protected].